Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 22, 2024

Review: Majestic Theater, "The Play That Goes Wrong"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through June 2, 2024
by Lisa Covi

Laughter billowed from the Majestic Theater for a solid 2 hours during the performance of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Described as a cross between Monty Python and Sherlock Holmes, this play within a play depicts a community production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” 

Photo by Kait Rankins
The farce begins before the lights go down as two "crew members" place/misplace props and
make last minute repairs to the mantle, grandfather clock, and lighting. As these preparations extend, the audience starts to realize that the game's afoot. Chris Bean (Jack Grigoli), the character who plays the director and stars as Inspector Carter, provides a brief introduction to the play. As each character takes the stage, they valiantly perform though the mistakes of the actors, production, and literal collapse of the elaborate set.

The Majestic's cast includes actors familiar and new to their theater. These polished performers not only have the talent for timing and physical comedy – no small feat that includes scaling a bookshelf to a loft action-area, but also the chemistry with other players that allow audience members to believe  that those on stage are community members struggling to keep the play going.

Two examples are Mariko Iwasa's Annie, a gifted mime who projects earnestness as both a tech and understudy; and Shaun O'Keefe's Robert, who scrambles about the set convincingly while accusing and denying his character's role in the murder investigation.

The design of the set is ingenious to fail so consistency and convincingly without truly injuring the actors.

“The Play that Goes Wrong” gets it right for diverting and entertaining. Even if absurdist comedy is not your cup of tea, those seated in the theater will immediately become caught up in the visual surprises, performative flourishes, or plot twists that ensue. There are a few blind spots for the patrons -- on the left and right sides of the stage that obscure some key action areas, so the best seats are in the middle. This kind of production is particularly suited to multiple viewings as the staging and special effects are a delight to behold. Be prepared to giggle, hoot, and guffaw in the best aspects of live theater.

Review: Hartford Stage, “All My Sons”

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through May 5, 2024
by Shera Cohen

My Plus 1 for “All My Sons” at Hartford Stage told me, “I prefer to attend dramatic plays [to any other genre]”. Arthur Miller’s classic “All My Sons” is about as dramatic any piece of theatre can be.

Entering the theatre takes patrons directly onto the set; stepping through grass with tree stumps in view next to a large house. Staging creates the home of the Keller family in the 1940’s/50’s. Just about everything seems right as houses and backyards go, yet a small torn-down tree, situated front and center, works as a foreboding sign important to the plot.

Joe and Kate Keller (Michael Gaston and Marsha Mason, respectively) are in their early 60’s, have lived in this “anywhere” town for decades. They know their neighbors. The neighbors think they know the Kellers. Yet the play is packed with a giant secret, at first shrouded in light-hearted, off-the-cuff banter, developing slowing into emotional, and even physical chaos.

Although the Keller’s elder son, Larry, had died in WWII three year ago, he is ever-present, just as the tree, planted in his memory. Younger son, Chris (Ben Katz) is left with the scars of his brother, parents, girlfriend, as well as the lives others left behind.

Family issues are at the forefront: loyalty, loathing, varying degrees of truth and lies, mystery, most importantly denials . There are many questions for an audience member to  take home. The overall question is “When do morals supersede extremely difficult situations?”

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Gaston takes the lead as the erstwhile patriarch of the family. From the start, Gaston portrays a tortured man with an exterior of bravado, which the audience immediately observes. The actor’s facial expressions, voice, and stance are accentuated as the story progresses.

Marsha Mason, a well-known actress usually in light roles on television and movies, musters her metal as Kate Keller, portraying the epitome of denial regarding her son’s death. The audience can feel her pain.

Fiona Robberson and Reece Dos Santos, portray sister and brother Ann and George. Their roles are smaller than others, yet their characters are pivotal. There is never hesitation that the conflicts in the plot effect each character’s future.

Melia Bensussen, HS Artistic Director takes on double duty as “AMS” director, keeping the pace smooth and rapid, especially in Act II, when onstage  conflicts are at peak level. No more mystery and inuendo. It’s Bensussen’s job to permit Arther Miller’s characters to peel off the layers of deceit. And it’s the audience’s job to see how the artistic staff and superior actors manage to do this.

April 17, 2024

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Vivaldi’s Gloria"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
April 12-14, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

At first glance, the seventh “Masterworks” program of the HSO’s 80th anniversary season looked like a hodgepodge of disparate, unrelated works. But guest conductor Jacomo Bairos, quoting Hartford Chorale Music Director Jack Anthony Pott, called it a “garden” displaying the “wonderful variety” of classical music.  

The evening's concert opened with several selections from “Spirituals: A Medley,” 1920's arrangements by William Grant Still, the “dean of African-American composers,” of traditional Black spirituals. The ensemble was joined in all but one number by eloquent soprano Schauntice Shepard, who brought aching poignancy to “Were You There?” and fervent hope to “Deep River.”

Jacomo Bairos
HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal was next featured in Edouard Lalo’s 1873 “Symphonie Espagnole,” a concerto for violin and orchestra in all but name. A Frenchman’s homage to Spanish musical traditions, its five movements included offbeat and imaginative rhythms and require a virtuosic soloist. Sigal’s secure technique and silken tone, which he shaded at times to achieve a husky, almost gypsy-like sound, met or exceeded the piece’s every demand. Bairos and the HSO matched their soloist in sensitivity and flair.

The other major work on the program was Antonio Vivaldi’s 1720 “Gloria,” which has become the best known of the Italian master’s many sacred compositions. The text of the half-hour work, sung in Latin by mixed chorus and soloists, is derived from the Catholic Mass. Its 12 short movements featured wide contrasts in tempo and dynamics, including several intimate passages for soloists and one or two instruments. Bairos led a thrilling performance, with robust, flexible, and lucid singing by the men and women of the Hartford Chorale, soprano Suzanne Lis, mezzo-soprano Hannah Shea, and notable contributions from all sections of the orchestra.

The program closed with a sumptuous reading of “Make Your Garden Grow,” the stirring finale of Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 Broadway musical “Candide,” based on Voltaire’s 1759 satire, with lyrics by poet Richard Wilbur. Tenor Dominick Chenes was a plangent title character, and Lis, a radiant Cunegonde, his loving bride. The Hartford Chorale, HSO, and Bairos offered vibrant support.

The Portuguese-American Bairos, currently based in Miami Beach, Florida and Lisbon, Portugal, has a charismatic, Bernstein-esque stage presence, and his strong rapport with HSO and its audience would make him a welcome return visitor to Hartford.

The HSO’s next Masterworks program (May 10-12) will feature music of Mozart and Prokofiev.

April 13, 2024

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "An American Celebration"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
April 6, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

With engaging and informative spoken remarks about each piece on the program, guest conductor Peter Boyer proved as able a raconteur as a conductor and composer in his SSO debut.

The “celebration” theme of the evening started even before the official concert with an upbeat rendition of “Happy Birthday” for 32-year SSO violinist Miho Matsuno by her colleagues under concertmaster Masako Yanagita. It also showcased the family feeling among SSO members.

They opened the formal program with two contrasting fanfares: Aaron Copland’s grand and spacious 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man,” honoring World War II American soldiers; and Jennifer Higdon’s fast-paced 1999 “Fanfare Ritmico,” depicting, in her words, the “rhythmic motion, of man and machine…in the new century.” Boyer and the SSO were fervent advocates for both forceful scores. 

Next came a vibrant account of the concert suite from Copland’s 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring.” Written for dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, its eight movements tell the story of a pioneer couple moving into their first home. While the most famous movement is based on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” Boyer shaped the quiet closing (which he quoted film composer Elmer Bernstein as wishing he had written) with special sensitivity. 

The concert closed with two rhapsodies for piano and orchestra, both featuring soloist Jeffrey Biegel: George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue;” and Boyer’s own “Rhapsody in Red, White & Blue,” which Biegel commissioned him to write in celebration of the “Rhapsody in Blue” centennial this year. Boyer’s piece was played first (he quipped, “you never want to follow the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’”). Biegel brought virtuosity and interpretive finesse to its energetic opening, lush, bluesy midsection, and jubilant, showy finale. Boyer led the SSO with a sure feeling for “the composer I know best.”

After KeriAnn DeBari’s sinuous opening clarinet solo (which drew an approving smile from Biegel), the pianist loosened up for a jazzy take on Gershwin’s crowd-pleasing classic. Biegel included some rare solo passages omitted from Ferde Grofe’s expansion for symphony orchestra of Gershwin’s original setting for Paul Whiteman’s 23-piece jazz band. All the musicians played with a white-hot intensity that brought the capacity audience to its feet.

The SSO’s next classical concert is “Magic & Glory” on May 18. 

April 8, 2024

REVIEW: Theatre Guild of Hampden, "Oklahoma!"

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA
Through April 14, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

NOTE: According to the venue website, all performances are sold out.

“Oklahoma!,” the 1943 show that marked both a new level of complexity in the Broadway
musical and the first collaboration by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, has been performed in many ways, but leave it to the innovative Theatre Guild of Hampden to present its exuberant new production as an immersive hoedown in its theater-in-the-round home, the Red Barn at Fountain Park in Wilbraham, MA.

Set in Indian Territory in 1906 (Oklahoma became a state in 1907), it tells the story of farm girl Laurey and her two suitors, cowboy Curly and farmhand Jud, with comic relief from cowboy Will Parker, his fiancée, Ado Annie, and Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Using minimal props (two chairs and a few cloth-covered hay bales) and open space between audience seats (with a small porch at one end) for their stage, co-directors Chris Rojas and Mark Giza wisely put the focus on their resourceful 18-member cast.

Joey Valencourt’s plaintive tenor and skilled guitar-playing make him an appealing and sympathetic Curly. Ally Reardon’s full-bodied, expressive soprano gives her Laurey a thoughtful, yearning poignancy. The chemistry between the two leads is instantly palpable. Nick Adams’ rich baritone finds hidden sensitivity in the morbid Jud. Max Levheim’s hapless Will Parker is an endearing foil for Dominique Libera’s ditsy Ado Annie. Joe Lessard is a nimble Ali Hakim, and Kathy Renaud’s portrayal of Laurey’s Aunt Eller is a hoot, with a spine of steel.

Musical highlights include: Valencourt’s exhilarating “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin;” Levheim’s hyperactive “Kansas City;” Libera’s hilariously over-the-top “I Cain’t Say No;” Reardon’s carefree “Many A New Day;” Adams’ dramatic “Lonely Room;” a soaring “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Valencourt and Reardon; and a stirring title song by the ensemble.

Choreographer Dina Del Buono somehow keeps the full cast in frequent motion across the narrow playing space with no collisions and dances with fluid grace herself as Laurey in the haunting “Dream Ballet” that closes Act I. Instrumental support by music director Bobby Scott on piano, violinist Anne-Marie Messbauer, and percussionist Ray Cole heightens the prevailing mood of festive intimacy.

This inventive production is modest in scale but wide and deep in emotional resonance. Local fans of great musical theater should snap up tickets while they last.

April 7, 2024

REVIEW: TheaterWorks Hartford, “Sanctuary City”

TheaterWorks Hartford, Hartford CT
through April 25, 2024
by Jarice Hanson
“Sanctuary City” at TheaterWorks Hartford is an ambitious contemporary play by Martyna Majok, the author of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for drama, “Cost of Living.” The 90-minute play is written in three parts and structured (somewhat) like a three-act play.
Photo Credit: TheaterWorks Hartford
The characters are “B” (for Boy) played by Grant Kennedy Lewis, and “G” (for Girl), played by Sara Gutierrez. It is no accident that these characters do not have an identity in the sense of having a name. They represent the many boys and girls who find themselves undocumented in America and burdened by the limitations made on them by the decisions of their parents. A third character is introduced in the third part of the play. It is “Henry,” played by Misha Yarovoy, who upends the situation and forces B and G to rethink their plans and choices.
All three of these characters are courageous, and the actors who inhabit them are likable. Each is smart, resourceful, and kind. The audience can’t help but hope for a happy ending. Still, there is an overriding feeling of gloom that permeates the situation, so that when the inevitable conclusion arrives, we feel a level of empathy that teaches us a lesson about people whom we may not understand. This is good playwriting, and excellent acting.
The play is set in the Ironbound section of Newark, shortly after 9/11. The place is a bleak, poverty ridden area known as a tough place to live. Immigration has just become a major topic for the country, and the fear immigrants experienced then, as now, is a constant undercurrent of the play’s meaning and message. When we meet B and G, they are children, facing an uncertain future, but as they grow and get to know each other, they hatch a plan for their long-term survival. Each lives with their mother, and each of those mothers are representative of so many single mothers who want the best for their children. When the children grow to be young adults living in America, we see a very different viewpoint of survival and desire.
This play was developed in partnership with Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, and is listed as having two co-directors, Jacob G. Padrón, and Pedro Bermúdez. The publicity for the show states it as an “immersive environment,” largely due to Bermúdez’ stunning video projections and video design, enhanced by Emmie Finckel’s imaginatively spare set. The multi-media aspect of the show is visually arresting and flawlessly executed, but despite the augmented backgrounds and suggestion of three-dimensionality as characters are displayed against a series of screens that suggest a maze, the play itself is almost unabashedly traditional in structure and impact. The special effects are nice, but the message of this play is what stays with the audience and gives this play a social currency unlike others.

March 14, 2024

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Copland & Bernstein"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
March 8-10, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

With a program of two complete ballets and a waltz, the sixth “Masterworks” weekend of the HSO’s 80th anniversary season offered three contrasting perspectives on the art of dance.

The first selection was notable in three respects. The orchestra and its Music Director Carolyn Kuan presented Aaron Copland’s 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring” not in the usual concert suite, but complete; they played its original version for 13 instruments; and their performance was accompanied by a 1958 film of the ballet choreographed by and featuring Martha Graham, for whom it was written.

While the suite includes the most familiar music, the added visual dimension brought the missing numbers equally to life. And the 64-year-old Graham, in the leading role of the wife (the ballet depicts 19th-century newlyweds moving into a farmhouse) still danced with remarkable grace and agility. Kuan’s inspired leadership drew an intimate yet surprisingly full-bodied sound from the small HSO ensemble.    

The next work on the program made perhaps the most visceral impact: a buoyant account by the full orchestra of Leonard Bernstein’s ballet “Fancy Free,” also dating from 1944. This, too, was the complete ballet, not the concert suite Bernstein extracted from it. It tells the story of three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York who meet three women in a bar (the same plot soon became the musical “On the Town,” with different music by Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). Highlights included: a jazzy “Scene at the Bar;” a sinuous “Enter Two Girls;” and a sultry, Latin-flavored “Danzon.”

The program closed on a glamorous note, with ballroom dancers Anastasia Barhatova, director of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in Suffield, and Andrew Kerski sweeping elegantly across the front of the Belding stage while Kuan and the HSO played Johann Strauss, Jr’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” behind them. A flop when it debuted in Vienna as a choral piece in 1867, the “Waltz King” reworked it for orchestra later that year, when it quickly became the epitome of the Viennese waltz. The musicians made it sound just as stylish and sumptuous as the dancers looked in their sequined gown and tuxedo.  

The HSO’s next Masterworks program (April 12-14) will feature guest conductor Jacomo Bairos and the Hartford Chorale.

March 11, 2024

Review: Springfield Chamber Players, "March Reveries"

First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA
March 10, 2024
by Lisa Covi

Photo by Eagan Pictures
New to many living in Western MA is Springfield Chamber Players, formerly known as MOSSO (Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra). Its mission is to provide small, primarily string, professional concerts in a variety of venues throughout Hampden County. 

The troupe continued its journey for the 2023/24 season as part of the Longmeadow Chamber Series held at First Church of Christ: an ideal, comfortable, and acoustically pleasing performance venue. The world-class musicians played well in this intimate setting for about 40 audience members. The program's theme was "March Reveries," and the quintet delivered an exciting and harmonious performance.

Clarinetist Christopher Cullen kicked off the Ralph Vaughan Williams piece – "Six Studies in English Folk Song". One would never guess that the composer penned his piece originally for cello and piano. Patricia Edens, cellist; and three violinists, Springfield Symphony concertmaster Masako Yanagita, Miho Matsuno, and Yuko Naito-Gotay filled out the quintet and blended seamlessly with the alto-like tones of melodic wind.

Each movement was surprisingly short and distinctive. The next two works were performed without clarinet, but solely strings. Selections from Franz Joseph Hadyn's “The Dream” (Op.50, No.5) delivered the reliable elegance of his tonic harmonies punctuated by running passages, and “contrary motion” where two musicians play notes that move in opposite directions. 

The two movements of Paul Chihara's "Ellington Fantasy: Mood Indigo" and "Sophisticated Lady" were recognizable as popular jazz tunes. However, the arrangement for string quartet transformed Ellington into an extraordinarily new feast for the ears. It echoed the music experience of Scott Joplin. 

The final piece, Bernard Herrmann's "Souvenirs de Voyage," reunited the strings with the clarinet to evoke memories of emotion, turmoil, regret, and amusement. Herrmann's skill at scoring for film and television, such as Citizen Kane and Twilight Zone's “The Living Doll,” were evident in the different points of view heard as each musician played a contrasting line in particular passages.

One advantage of the smaller venue is that each participant in the audience could hear the vibrations against the soundboards of the strings and the musicians' proficient bow techniques that usually blend into the background with larger performance groups. The chamber music series is not only highly entertaining, but a good way to access Springfield's elite performers.

Concerts continue as part of Westfield Athenaeum Chamber Music Series on Thursday, April 18 at 7pm, and once again at First Church of Christ, Longmeadow on May 12 at 3pm on the Town Green, weather-permitting.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Fantasias"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
March 9, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

In notes for this concert, dedicated to the memory of SSO principal pianist Nadine Shank, Michelle Pina defines a fantasia as “a musical composition whose improvisational nature casts aside traditional musical forms and in turn bows to the fancy of the composer.” Guest conductor Adam Kerry Boyles, Assistant Conductor of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and the SSO musicians found this spontaneous quality in all six pieces on this imaginative program. 

The program opened with a glowing account of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” a 1934 orchestral setting of the classic English folk song. A faster midsection, which quotes the traditional song “Lovely Joan,” offers a lively contrast. Lili Boulanger’s 1918 “D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning”)” takes the opposite approach, framing a soft, dreamy interlude with brisk, joyful outer sections. Boyles and the SSO made an exuberant case for this rarity.   

Quynh Nguyen
Vietnamese-American pianist Quynh Nguyen next soloed in classical and film composer Paul Chihara’s 2021 “Piano Concerto-Fantasy,” written for and in collaboration with her. This colorful score draws on both Vietnamese folk music and modern jazz to depict Vietnam’s past and hopes for the future. Nguyen’s technical prowess and interpretive sensitivity captured all the music’s shifting moods. Boyles and the orchestra were enthusiastic partners.

The concert’s second half featured the Springfield Symphony Chorus and UMass Amherst Chorale, well prepared by their respective directors, Nikki Stoia and Reagan G. Paras. Gabriel Faure’s 1864 “Cantique de Jean Racine” set a sacred text by the French poet to music of gentle consolation for chorus, harp, and low strings. Randall Thompson’s poignant 1959 settings of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Choose Something Like a Star” are for chorus and full orchestra. Voices and instruments blended with seemingly effortless clarity under Boyles’ nuanced lead.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1808 “Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra,” last performed by the SSO with Shank in 2015, completed the program. Nguyen and the ensemble rendered the many tempo changes in this sometimes ungainly but always entertaining twenty-minute piece with forceful virtuosity. Though only heard for the last few minutes, the combined choruses sang with equal strength and fluidity, investing Christoph Kuffner’s text on the power of the arts with triumphant conviction.

The next SSO concert is “An American Celebration” on April 6, 2024

February 27, 2024

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, "Liana Paniyeva"

Evergreen Crossings, South Windsor, CT
February 25, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

Liana Paniyeva
After a prior appearance here and two at Sevenars in Worthington, MA, all within the past two years, Ukrainian-born, Boston-based pianist Liana Paniyeva is now a beloved local visitor, as evidenced by the rapturous welcome of a capacity audience at her return engagement in South Windsor.  

Her technically challenging and emotionally demanding program opened with a powerful rendition of Cesar Franck’s rarely heard 1884 “Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue.” Paniyeva’s tense, foreboding Prelude, solemn, probing “Chorale,” and fiercely dramatic “Fugue” captured both the piece’s mystical fervor and its virtuosic thrills.  

This was followed by stirring accounts of Johannes Brahms’ two 1879 Rhapsodies, Op. 79. Paniyeva took a bold approach to the turbulent opening notes of the first rhapsody, in B minor, easing into the lyrical repose of the middle section. She invested the calmer second rhapsody, in G minor, with dark and brooding undertones.

Next came Boris Lyatoshynsky’s much less familiar five Preludes, Op. 44, written in his native Ukraine during World War II. Reflecting influences from later Scriabin to Ukrainian folk music, it was easy to hear echoes of her roots in eastern Ukraine and its current war with Russia in Paniyeva’s poignant readings of the tragic first prelude, the radiant second, the restless third, the melancholy fourth, and the hopeful fifth.   

The program closed with an electrifying version of Frederic Chopin’s 1844 Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58, one of the Polish master’s most difficult yet rewarding scores. Paniyeva heightened the sharp contrasts among its four movements, with a mercurial “Allegro maestoso” leading into a fleet, headlong “Scherzo,” a ravishing “Largo,” in which time almost stood still, and an alternately tumultuous and triumphant “Presto non tanto” finale.

Paniyeva combines a modest stage presence with playing of absolute clarity, technical security, and interpretive maturity, which has made her a prizewinner in many international competitions and augurs a long career of musical substance and distinction.  

All concerts in this 42-year-old series take place on Sundays at 2:00 pm, and open seating in its acoustically first-rate auditorium begins a half-hour earlier. SWCA will next present cellist Michael Katz and pianist Spencer Myer on March 24, 2024.

February 19, 2024

Review: Majestic Theater, "The Ladyslipper"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
February 18 - March 24, 2024 
by Lisa Covi

"The Ladyslipper" is a bar in a rural town in the Northeastern US where the owner has died and prospects for reopening are uncertain. The closeup venue and professional production values of this play draw the audience immediately into a warm familiarity. Daniel Rist's lighting and Dawn McKay's costume design blend to provide an evocative and workable space for the intimate action.

Mark Dean as Jebb and Jay Sefton's Hank feel authentic and recognizable as the cook and bartender, respectively, who know about all the goings-on except where their own lives are going. Enter the ladies. Like the glorious petals of the bar's mascot, they infuse life and romance into the play. Lana, played by Madeleine Maggio, is the British heiress apparent, having received this establishment from Rosie, her recently deceased birth mother. Chelsea Nectow's Trisha, the lawyer handling the transaction is the daughter of Rosie's best friend Estelle (played by Cate Damon). Despite the admiration of Jebb and Hank, Trisha is imminently to be wed to Jimmy Collins (Jay Torres), her childhood sweetheart. The actors inhabit these characters so completely that we immediately perceive the control Jimmy tries to exert on Trisha, the exotic air that Lana imports from her life in Spain, and the tenderness between mother Estelle and daughter Trisha.

This play by Danny Eaton, the long-time producing director of Majestic Theater, was first produced as a live reading in 2020.

Photo by Kait Rankins
The responsive audience was clearly entertained with the laughter during the comical dialog between Jebb and Hank and audible gasps during the surprises post-intermission. However, the play does not yet feel fully edited because the plot is bogged down with exposition in the first six scenes. For example, the plethora of detail about each character could be better balanced by some struggle or foreshadowing to enhance the comedy or drama. 

Without revealing the major plot twist, the compelling action happens primarily late in the play. When it does occur, the production hits a sweet spot of acting in a well-designed space with delicate moments between different subsets of players.

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, "10x10 New Play Festival"

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through March 10, 2024
By Jarice Hanson

Kicking off Barrington Stage Co.’s 30th year, the 13th annual “10 X 10 New Play Festival” is
ceremonially the start of the theatre season in the Berkshires. The “10 X 10” is often bold, edgy, and frequently, very funny. It  allows audiences to see some stalwart Barrington actors switch characters seamlessly as they leap into 10 different 10-minute plays.  
The opening number is always a highlight of this festival and this year’s “Winter Nights,” sung to the tune of “Summer Nights” from “Grease,” is particularly witty and representative of cold New England and in particular, the Pittsfield location and the long theatrical legacy of BSC.
The very talented cast this year includes Ross Griffin, Gisela Chípe, Matt Neely, Peggy Pharr Wilson, Naire Poole, and Robert Zuckerman. These consummate pros know how to take the intimate stage and play to the audience. When they seemingly morph from one character to another, sometimes transforming their look, age, and ethnicity, their talents are on full display.
The plays chosen for this year’s collection range widely in scope and style. The playwrights include some veteran writers and some relative newcomers. Five of the plays are directed by Alan Paul, Artistic Director of BSC, and Matthew Penn, television and theatre director. One of the joys of the collection is that each play is presented as a unique vision of the authors’ work. Congratulations to the directors for finding the right balance and interpretation of these very different short plays.
Evaluating 10-minute plays is sometimes tricky. Often short plays lack any wrap up, or conclusion. But even more importantly, can the authors, directors, and actors tell a complete story? Among the most successful in this year’s lineup are “The Consultant” by Brent Askari, which pits a senior couple (Peggy Pfarr Wilson and Robert Zuckerman) who have won a session with a sex therapist in a raffle, against the methods of the therapist (Gisela Chípe). “Meeting Fingerman” by Mark Evan Chimsky prompts painful thoughts of life in a pogram where Zuckerman portrays an elderly Jewish man who recalls a shameful past when confronted by a younger writer, played by Ross Griffin. A note about this one—Zuckerman’s portrayal is so beautifully crafted; the price of admission is worth watching his master class in character interpretation. 
“Snow Falling Faintly” by James McLindon tells the story of a mother and son, lovingly portrayed by Peggy Pharr Wilson and Ross Griffin in an existential treatise about snow shoveling, loss, and moving on. Finally, Glenn Alterman’s clever “A Doubt My Play” with the entire cast, is a very insightful examination of playwriting from inside the playwright’s head!

February 13, 2024

Review: Springfield Symphony Orchestra “Havana Nights”

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
February 10, 2024
by Lisa Covi

Springfield Symphony Orchestra's presentation of “Havana Nights” was a fantastic performance that injected the Latino rhythms into the mild February night. Conductor Nick Palmer kicked off the program with lively dances and Spanish songs interpreted by featured soloist Camille Zamora. It seemed as though the castanets and cymbals amplified the enthusiasm of the crowd for the bright tones and snappy tempo. The hall was as full as I've seen it, and the audience's enthusiasm overflowed.

Even the orchestra members appeared relaxed and primed for something special; some wore bright tops and most men left their neckties at home. One exception was the resplendent Zamora who was dressed to the nines in formal gowns appropriate to her operatic soprano. She conversed with the audience in both Spanish and English with aplomb. She described Gimenez's “Zapateada” as Verdi takes “La Traviata” to his favorite salsa bar. 

Zamora’s soaring lyricism blended so well with the orchestra that it sounded like she was singing duets with the violins or wind section. Performing in front of a standing microphone did seem odd for concert rendition, but the music blended well. In some of the orchestral pieces, the sound was so striking, I searched the stage for a pianist or accordionist (perhaps because I was trained on the keyboard).

Composer Jeff Tyzik's “Tango” featured a solo oboist whose melodious part contrasted sharply with a staccato violin introduction where the strings seemed to scream and cheer the reed's dancing line. Ernesto Lecuona's “Andalucia” evoked the contours of a Spanish countryside with a bold arrangement. Tyzik's “Three Latin Dances” closed the first half with a modern Cuban feel that revealed the influence of his work with Chuck Mangione in unique chord changes and swinging transitions.

The Mambo Kings
The concert's second half was even more dynamic. On stage were The Mambo Kings’ energetic and improvisational style, whether blending into orchestral arrangements or performing as a quintet. I could feel composer Dave Brubeck's infectious smile in pianist (and Peruvian) Richard Delaney's arrangement of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Percussionist Tony Padilla's congo beats alternated with the traditional jazz refrain creating an exciting showcase for each musician's solo. John Vivattini held court on flute and saxophone.

Camille Zamorra returned to perform “Besame Mucho,” “Como Fue,” and the encore piece “Sabor A Mi” matching style and pitch with the ensemble. The showstopper was composer Tito Puente's “Oye, Como Va” featuring an extended solos by bassist Hector Diaz and percussionist Wilfredo Colon. The latter substituted a new drumstick after dropping one without missing a beat. 

Although only one couple took up the conductor's invitation to dance in the aisle, many heads were bobbing and the appearance of phones taking video gave the concert a rock-concert vibe. The standing ovation felt sincere and well-deserved for both guests and orchestra musicians. Bravo and Ole for this season's most memorable and enjoyable concert yet.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Enduring Love Stories"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
February 9-11, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

With five musical selections about love stories and a married couple as featured performers,
the fifth “Masterworks” weekend of the HSO’s 80th anniversary season offered an early celebration of Valentine’s Day.

What better way to open the program than with Tchaikovsky’s popular 1869 “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture"? Music Director Carolyn Kuan led the orchestra in an incandescent account, which captured the foreboding tension of the quiet opening, the drama of the family feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, and the youthful passion of Shakespeare’s famous lovers.    
Boyd Meets Girl

Next came the world premiere of Clarice Assad’s concerto for guitar, cello, and orchestra, "Anahata,” commissioned by the HSO for, and played here by, the duo “Boyd Meets Girl” – Australian-born guitarist Rupert Boyd and his wife, cellist Laura Metcalf. The composer notes, “Anahata," “unhurt”…in Sanskrit, refers to the heart,” and “its three movements explore…love’s wounds [and] its most precious dreams.”

From a stirring “The Color Green” to a haunting “Desert Roses” and a lively “Full Circle Reel,” the elegant solos and duets by Boyd and Metcalf blended sensitively with Assad’s brilliant orchestration (including water bowls), which reflected the Latin rhythms of her native Brazil.

The duo’s encore was a jazzy yet poignant setting of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” evoking America’s love affair with the Fab Four on the 60th anniversary weekend of their first appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show".  

Tchaikovsky’s love for and regular visits to Italy inspired some of his finest music, like his 1880 “Capriccio Italien,” which quotes local tunes he heard in Rome. The HSO reveled in its solemn opening fanfare, sprightly folk dances, giddy tarantella, and closing blaze of orchestral color.

This was followed by a radiant performance of the sublime “Adagietto” movement from Mahler’s 1901-1902 fifth symphony, a musical love letter to his wife-to-be, Alma, which Kuan and the orchestra dedicated to beloved recently deceased 57-year HSO violinist Frank Kulig.

The overture to Offenbach’s 1858 opera “Orpheus in the Underworld” proved a surprisingly apt concert closer in these musicians’ exuberant reading. Its cheerful “Can Can” tune suggested a happier ending to the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice than his failure to bring her back from dead.  

The HSO’s next Masterworks program (March 8-10) will feature music of Copland and Bernstein.

February 10, 2024

REVIEW: TheaterWorks Hartford, “The Garbologists”

TheaterWorks Hartford, Hartford CT
through February 25, 2024
by Jarice Hanson
Photo by Mike Marques
With a title like “The Garbologists” you have to be ready for just about anything. TheaterWorks Hartford’s newest show has a promising premise.  Two sanitation workers, an old hand, and a newbie, are assigned to work together. The one with experience, Danny, played by Jeff Brooks, is a White career sanitation worker with no pretense about what he does, and a wealth of knowledge about how to do the job right. For him, being a sanitation worker is an art form, and he subtly instructs us about the dangers of doing this type of essential work.  
Marlowe, played by Bebe Nicole Simpson, is Black and has an Ivy League degree. There’s something in her past that she doesn’t want to talk about, and why she has become a sanitation worker is part of the unfolding of this story.
The comedy begins with both starting their day in the sanitation truck.  Danny cracks Dad jokes, and Marlowe scrolls on her phone while sipping coffee. They are clearly mismatched, so where might this plot go? Will it be a love story? A buddy adventure? A race/class theme? 
There’s a lot to like in this 90-minute production, including Director Rob Ruggiero’s clever use of the stage crew dressed as sanitation workers themselves. The amazing set design by Marcelo Martínez Garcia, with authentic costumes by Joseph Shrope and lighting design by John Lasiter present a unified vision of the garbage-laden streets of New York City.The pacing is brisk and there is something very appealing about a story focusing on people who are often overlooked.
Lindsay Joelle’s script is effective in giving the characters backstories and focusing on the idea of a civilization’s record being comprised of what we throw away, but the writing is somewhat uneven and at times the dialog seems a bit manipulative. What seems to be lacking between the characters is chemistry that raises the possibility of an outcome that propels the action toward the conclusion. At the same time, what emerges is a heart-felt twist that is realistic, and at the same time contrived.
Theatre depends on the characters changing as the plot develops, and Brooks infuses his performance with an energy that is consistent and totally believable. Simpson’s authenticity is charming, and she is most effective when warning Danny to curb his exuberance in a heated family confrontation, but the tension between the two seems uneven. At the same time, the show its audience sees on opening night is not the same show that emerges throughout the show’s run, and as these two talented performers become more connected over time, “The Garbologists” may become the type of play that has a long life on many stages.  

Review: The Bushnell, "Disney's Frozen"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
February 9 - 18, 2024
by Suzanne Wells

The Magic of Disney comes alive in the musical production of "Frozen" directed by Andrew Flatt, Thomas Schumacher, and Anne Quart. The story of two sisters who face their greatest fears and discover, that despite their differences, their love for each other will (surprise!) save everyone.

Set in a Nordic kingdom, the combination of scenery and an interactive light display magically transform a warm, inviting palace with a lilac filled garden to a sparkling, solitary, ice castle on top of a mountain.

Anna, played by Lauren Nicole Chapman, gives an energetic, occasionally salacious, performance. Everyone will fall in love with Anna’s ever hopeful, sometimes challenging, awkward youthfulness and her warm, loving heart. Chapman‘s talented acting, singing and dancing abilities make her a joy to see live onstage.

Elsa, played by Caroline Bowman, is a solitary, young woman fearful of her own abilities, but devoted to her family. Bowman does an excellent job of conveying the conflict between duty and desire, although at times, it is difficult to perceive her as a young woman coming of age.  However, all disbelief is suspended when she sings. Her voice enchantingly transports you into the storyline so that her inner struggles become your own.

Hans, played by Preston Perez, is an actor to keep an eye on. His transformation from loving prospective husband to calculating, manipulative usurper shocks the audience so much so they booed him during the end of the night accolades. It is said, if you can play the villain well, you can play anything. This reviewer looks forward to seeing Perez, perform anything in the future.   

Special mention and kudos go to Jeremy Davis as Olaf, and Dan Plehal as Sven. Admittedly it was a little distracting to see the puppet master, Davis appear with Olaf, but within seconds of his?/heir? entrance, the two merge into one lovable snowman.  Plehal‘s mimicry of a reindeer is so realistic that one questions if Sven is animatronic or human. In addition, comic relief is provided by Evan Duff as Lord Weselton, and Jack Brewer as Oaken is “Hygge”.

There is so much more to say and even more to personally enjoy in this production of "Frozen". It is a must-see experience for the whole family. 

REVIEW: Opera House Players, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”

Opera House Players, Enfield, CT
February 8 – 18, 2024
by Shera Cohen

When I first read that Opera House Players (OHP) had chosen “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” for its 2023/24 season my thought was that this community theatre troupe was taking on a huge task. Having attended OHP productions for 30+ years, I set my expectation level high. 

Current trends for plays in particular, as well as some musicals, are smaller and shorter. This is not the case with “Gentleman” which comes in at two and a half hours + intermission. The plotline of Act I is divided into seven sections with never a lull in dialog or music.

“Gentleman” is based on the 1940’s Alec Guinness movie, “Kind Hearts & Coronets”. Not one of my favorite 4-star movies and not as funny as I hoped, but that’s only my take. In his pre-Obi Wan days, Guinness was quite the actor! 

The play’s narrator, reading his diary aloud to himself and to the audience, breaks the fourth wall from the get-go; a nice method to bring the audience into the story so that we care about our hero (Monty) even more than we would possibly like any other baby-faced, naïve, destitute serial killer.

No worries, that’s not a spoiler. The director’s notes in the playbook tell us about Monty’s climb on the social ladder and search for overdue respect from his uppity relatives in the musty D’Ysquith family.

With the D’Ysquith  patriarch meeting his maker, eight heirs stand in line for the inheritance. Kudos to Zach Bakken, who plays all of the D’Ysquith family members: men and women, young and old. Each caricature seems funnier than the last as Bakken quickly changes costumes, accents, volume, demeanor, and voice. Bakken is a hoot, extremely versatile, and undoubtedly can do anything. Let’s see more of him!

The much-mentioned Monty Navarro is portrayed by Christopher Marcus. This attractive young man can be compared to Bakken as Laurel to Hardy, Abbott to Costello. The two play-off each other with ease. Marcus is thin and sinewy, using  physical humor to its optimum. Since this musical’s key factor is to be funny, you wouldn’t expect Marcus to be an excellent singer. He is! 

Monty’s love interests are Sibella, played by Caroline Darr; and Phoebe, played by Nicole Marie Newell. Darr’s mistress-role is more hysterical than lusty. Newell’s fiancé-role, again, is exceptionally funny. Each woman’s voice could easily be heard on a Broadway stage.

The orchestra, led by Graham Christian, even played funny, if that makes sense; a lot of schtick from the pit.

So much more to say. “Excellent” will have to be the single adjective to those on sound, lights, costumes, and sets with painted backdrops.

None of what I saw onstage, and surmise happened backstage would have been superb without the deft hand of Director Marla Ladd. Her bio is extensive. New to New England, any group who manages to swoop up Ladd in the future, will have an amazing piece of theatre on their stage. 

February 6, 2024

REVIEW: Valley Classical Concerts, "Merz Trio"

Smith College, Northampton, MA
February 4, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

Merz Trio
Founded in 2017 and named after a German collage artist, this Boston-based ensemble “juxtaposes classical standards, new music, and their own arrangements of familiar and forgotten works,” according to their program note. This concert, with a “Night Songs” theme (said cellist Julia Yang in opening remarks), was a textbook example of that eclectic philosophy.

It began with a suite of six short meditative pieces, mostly arranged by the Trio and played without pause. A haunting account of German mystic Hildegard von Bingen’s 11th-century hymn “O Fiery Spirit” was followed by: a rhapsodic “Andantino” solo by pianist Amy Yang from Robert Schumann’s 1845 “Six Studies in Canonic Form;” a mesmerizing “Hush No More,” from Henry Purcell’s 1692 opera “The Fairy Queen;” a lush take on Alma Mahler’s 1911 song “Mild Summer  Night”; a soulful “Round Midnight,” Thelonius Monk’s 1943 masterpiece; and a luxurious version of Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1897 song “Conception." The Trio’s singing in several selections deepened the suite’s nocturnal spell.  

Next came a vibrant interpretation of Schumann’s 1847 Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major, which featured: an expansive opening movement, briefly quoting his song “Intermezzo,” Op. 39/#2; a radiant slow movement, which came across as a lullaby; a mercurial waltz-like third movement “in moderate tempo;” and a lively, almost explosive finale.

The program closed with an impassioned reading of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, written in 1853-54 after the 20-year-old Brahms first met Robert and his composer-pianist wife Clara Schumann, but substantially revised in 1889. The Merz Trio offered: a vigorous opening “Allegro con brio;” a supercharged “Scherzo,” with a delicately nuanced interlude; a hushed, nocturne-like “Adagio;” and a turbulent “Allegro” finale.

Noting that “we can’t leave you in B minor” (the key on which Brahms’ finale ended), violinist Brigid Coleridge introduced as an encore the Trio’s luminous arrangement of Richard Strauss’s ravishing 1894 song “Morgen” (“Tomorrow”).

Along with their inventive programming, this threesome is notable for the rare mix of intensity and balance in their performances, with every instrument always clearly heard in this storied venue’s flattering acoustic.    

The next concert in Valley Classical’s 45th season will take place on February 24, 2024.

February 2, 2024

REVIEW: Hartford Stage “Simona’s Search”

Hartford Stage, Hartford CT.
January 18-February 11, 2024
by Jarice Hanson

“Simona’s Search” at Hartford Stage is intelligent, touching, brilliantly crafted, and so thoroughly engrossing, it gives an audience member something to think about for days. It is a masterpiece from the pen of the highly original playwright, Martín Zimmerman. 
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
This is a complicated story, told in part, through monologs by Simona, the daughter of a father who we learn, experienced trauma in his homeland before coming to the United States. Simona, a precocious child, relays the story of being ten-years-old and noticing her father’s unusual traits as well as his reticence to talk about his past. She begins her search to understand how and why Papi acts and behaves as he does. 

The investigation takes her through graduate school where she looks for answers in the literature of neuroscience and behavior, and she questions whether trauma is actually passed from one generation to another. In a mere 90-minutes, this show gives us a full plate upon which to feast. Pacing is perfection and every word is crystal clear.
The collaboration between director Melia Bensussen and Zimmerman is highly successful. The show is part immigrant story, and part a detective story in which the audience becomes captivated by the “what if’s.” What if this is all in Simona’s head? What if Simona’s theories about post-generational trauma are right? What if the body and mind are repositories of collected trauma and grief?
To make these complicated ideas more visual and universal, Bensussen and Zimmerman use the magical realism endemic to Latin American literature and storytelling to show the relationship of body and mind. A simple set designed by Yu Shibagaki, projections by Yana Biryukova, lighting design by Aja M. Jackson, and sound design by Aubrey Dube enhance the multi-dimensional experience that enhance the visual and auditory experience for the audience.
Simona is played by Alejandra Escalante, an actress with an resume that suggests she is more experienced than the clean-faced actress we see who successfully expresses the feeling of growing from 10-years old to an adult. She is a winsome actress with grace that makes her a sympathetic protagonist.

Papi is played with charm and intelligence by Al Rodrigo, who, as a committed single father, clearly loves and wants the best for his daughter. In brief cameos as other characters he demonstrates an uncanny ability to shift accents and range. The third member of the acting trio is Christopher Bannow as Jake, Simona’s boyfriend as well as other characters in which his physicality brings both comedy and fear.
Zimmerman raises two important questions in his script: Do parents have a right to privacy, and do children have a right to know everything about their parents? “Simona’s Search” may well ask audience-goers those questions of your own families.

January 29, 2024

Review: Playhouse on Park, “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B”

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT 
January 24 – February 18, 2024
by Shera Cohen

Needless to say, the title prepares the audience; this play will have two important elements – comedy and espionage. Written by Kate Hamill, whose genre is primarily revisits of classic novels, “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B” brings these sleuths into the 21st century.

The erstwhile duo solves three mini-mysteries before the ultimate cat and mouse game to apprehend Holmes’ arch enemy Moriarty. The unlikely duo does the best they can, even though they are girls. Hamill often pokes fun at male egos.

Hamill spins and twists, all the while tossing in puns, TV theme music, and malaprops.
The cast of four work well together; the two women as well as two other actors in multiple roles, totaling an approximate 12 characters populating the stage, but never all at once. 

Holmes and Watson, acted by Kirsten Peacock and Kelly Letourneau, respectively, create completely opposite characters in stance, voice, and appearance. Each are obviously fine actors, having their fingers on what makes audiences laugh.

Director Kelly O’Donnell moves her characters at a clip in what is a long play that easily could have been boring. However, the Holmes and Watson of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels boasted humorous repartee with a twinkle in their eyes. O’Donnell and the actresses definitely bring out the fun, but one dimensionally. I don’t know if in the script and/or the director’s vision, but the two lead characters don’t like each other for most of the play.

Nick Nudler, as every male, introduces the play directly to the audience as a macabre soothsayer. Breaking the fourth wall immediately brings us onto the stage. This schtick repeats a few times, adding an unexpected comic touch. It is a pleasure when Nudler enters, literally opening the door to add more humor to what is already onstage.

In four separate roles is Megan McDermott. Her primary skill is physical humor, which along with her effective English accent, make her quite a hoot. Never upstaging, McDermott is given her moments to shine, and she grabs them.

Playhouse on Park (POP, to me) has 14 years under its belt. It’s a small theatre, employs talented actors, and the presenters and crew hold nothing back in creating the best that theatre can be.

January 16, 2024

Commentary: SSO, "MLK, Jr. Celebration"

Springfield Symphany Hall, Springfield, MA
January 14, 2024
by Julia Hoffman

We appreciate when art lovers read "In the Spotlight." On occasion, individuals write to us directly. Because this patron's praise of SSO's January concert was so exuberant and honest, "In the Spotlight" presents it along with that of our music reviewer Lisa Covi, here.

On January 13, 2024, The City of Firsts, Springfield, MA, experienced a Night of Firsts with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. Damien Sneed, guest conductor for this evening, presented the world premiere “A Symphonic Homage to the Duke”. A beautiful arrangement commissioned by Springfield Symphony and composed by Sneed featured three Duke Ellington songs. Sneed is multi-talented as a pianist, vocalist, organist, composer, conductor, arranger, producer, and arts educator whose work spans multiple genres. Growing up with Gospel music in Augusta, GA, he refused to be defined by one genre alone and successfully branched out to Classical and Jazz. Springfield reaped the benefit of his leap outside the lines.  

In the Symphony pre-talk, [I urge symphony audiences to attend these free, short lectures] we were introduced to our featured artists; two young men of immense talent. Jason Flowers II from St Paul, MN studied Master of Music in Piano Performance at Manhattan School of Music and Master of Education at Columbia University. He is now a music teacher employed by NYC Department of Education. Teaching science and math in the Bronx, as well as music, is awe-inspiring enough, but his talent at the keyboard is undoubtably where his future lies. Flowers' featured piece, "Yamekra," written by the great jazz pianist James P. Johnson in 1927, pays homage to the Negro settlement on the outskirts of Savannah.

The second featured artist of the night, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson, The SSO program booklet states, he studied in his hometown of London at the Royal College of Music and now studies for his Master of Music in Clarinet at the Juilliard School, NYC. His piece was a jazz suite for clarinet composed in 1993 by David Baker. Three Ethnic Dances featured as many varied styles; jitterbug, slow drag, and calypso.

Women were not left off the program. In this case, African-American female composers were highlighted. Presented were Florence Price's "Colonial Dance and Concert Overture No.1" based on the spiritual “Sinner Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” Additionally, Margaret Bond’s Montgomery's "Variations" was dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To hear a 74-piece symphony play jazz with such talented featured artists will long be remembered. Congratulations to SSO for inspired programming, for giving showcase to voices less heard, and for providing another level of talent that we’ve not heard before from our beloved Symphony. This was a very special evening. As Damien Sneed said when introducing the two young talents, "Jason Flowers II and Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson are going to be famous, and very soon. But you heard it here First." 

January 15, 2024

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Martin Luther King, Jr. Program"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
January 13, 2024
by Lisa Covi

It was a cold dark night on January 13 in Springfield's Court Square when Symphony Hall welcomed a large crowd into its warm musical celebration. Guest conductor Damien Sneed and soloists Jason Flowers and Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson played as one with the orchestra to fill our ears and hearts with the pastoral harmonies and dissonances evoking scenes of the American South.

The occasion afforded the opportunity to showcase the talents of current and past Black artists who demonstrated to the diverse audience the contributions, richness, and skill of our African-American orchestral heritage.

The program, dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., featured works by African-American composers. Two symphonic works by Florence Price, originally performed in the 1920’s, opened each half of the program. Her “Colonial Dance” and the “Concert Overture No.1” alternated plaintive melodies with broad pastoral harmonies. Price was the first African American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Price's gift for arousing drama and emotion also led to her success in silent films accompaniments.

Florence Price
Los Angeles Sentinel
Price’s student and friend Margaret Bonds provided the second orchestral work of the evening, “The Montgomery Variations in 6 parts,” also produced a movie-soundtrack quality. The lyricism of each part depicted percussive undertones of suspense, hopeful voices of the horns, and the regal dignity of nonviolent response. This work captured Montgomery, Alabama's response to the mid-1950 bus boycott and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. 

Jason Flowers, an exciting young pianist, performed a remarkable interpretation of James R. Johnson's “Yamekraw,” a musical poem portraying the Savannah Harlem Renaissance artistic community. Inspired by Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue,” critics have assessed this piece as capturing a more authentic sound than Gershwin's work. Sneed impressively coordinated the solo passages with the orchestral syncopation, vividly illustrating the productive creative community.

During intermission, the young man from Amherst Regional High School who won the Senator Edward W. Brooke Young Oratorical Competition spoke eloquently on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. He reminded us of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.” 

A British musician, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson played a lively jazz clarinet solo in “Three Ethnic Dances” by David Baker. His ebullient sound soared between and above the orchestra's, manifesting the jitterbug, slow drag, and calypso. 

Duke Ellington performed in Springfield several times. His spirit returned to Symphony Hall when guest conductor, Damien Sneed, composed and conducted the world premiere of his “Symphonic Homage to the Duke”. This performance capped the evening with the full measure of joyful expression to send the audience out to bravely face the challenges of 2024.